It is a desire for knowledge that drives the ever ambitious Catalan Food and Wine Co-owner and Chef Chris Shepherd. After graduating from the Culinary Arts Program of Houston’s Art Institute, Shepherd worked in various area country clubs before joining his Art Institute pal Chef Randy Evans at Brennan’s of Houston. Shepherd swiftly worked his way up the ranks from line cook and purchasing agent to fromager, “wine guy,” and executive sous chef.
Not only is Shepherd adept in the kitchen, he absolutely loves every aspect of the restaurant business, especially getting to the root of a cuisine. In preparation for Catalan, he and another Art Institute compatriot, Charles Clark, ate their way through Barcelona, where the pure, rustic flavors of Catalan dishes and the vibrant culture enthralled him.
Shepherd, who values the freshness of ingredients above all else, painstakingly sources locally grown foods. “It’s about getting the best possible quality. There’s nothing like driving with 20 heads of fennel in the car and smelling that fresh aroma all the way back to the restaurant,” he says. “It really gets my creativity going!”
Shepherd’s talents, standards, and meticulousness have all been amply rewarded. Among his national recognition, the chef has received praise in The Wall Street Journal, Saveur, Food Arts, and Wine Spectator. And “wine guy” at heart, he continues to be a wine resource for numerous local and national publications. Shepherd recently announced that he and 2011 Houston Rising Star Mixologist Bobby Heugel will partner to open Underbelly and Haymarket.
Interview with Chef Chris Shepherd of Catalan Food and Wine – Houston, TX
Jessica Dukes: What advice do you offer young chefs just getting started?
Chris Shepherd: Practice what’s in your heart. As long as you’ve got passion—don’t lose that—you’ll succeed. The younger generation has grown up with Food TV, where they get this perception that everyone is going to get on TV and write books. It’s all about earning it and proving it, every day, 14 to 16 hours a day. So you’ve got to have a passion for it.
JD: Is there something on your menu that you are particularly excited about?
CS: Our goat comes from a local guy who does kids. The last time we did goat [in Jamaican Meat Pies and Curried Local Goat], we sold everything in one night. We do all our own breads and pastry. We take kidney fat from our pigs and put it into the pastry to add texture and mouthfeel. I learned that from the boys over at Feast.
JD: What do you see as current trends?
CS: Back when I was at Brennan’s, Randy Evans and I would get together with our wives to cook. One time I put a pork butt on the grill and we got to talking and drinking and the thing caught on fire. It's a flaming pork butt: a candied pork-ass. When we put it on the menu there wasn't a whole lot of pork belly; now there’s a lot. We go through 24 bellies a week. Seems like every day we’re cooking six bellies.
JD: Are there any ingredients that you feel are under-appreciated?
CS: I don’t know about under-appreciated but definitely appreciated … in the past, we’ve gone through a lot of Meyer lemons. We had a late storm [this year], and it took out the Meyer lemon trees. It sucks because they are 50 cents a pound. We were buying 300 pounds a week, and this year we won't have it. You want iced tea, you’ve got to have Meyer lemons.
JD: What steps are you taking to be a sustainable restaurant?
CS: We try to have 50 percent of our menu be local; even though we don't really talk about it, we feel it’s important. You’re supposed to do that, right? It's my job. If you start out with badass product, it makes good food easier. Even cauliflower: if I buy a cauliflower that's fresh, you can taste it. Right now, the season is green lettuces, radishes, Satsuma trees. My Satsuma purveyor has only got seven trees, and I just bought everything. When stuff starts to get ripe, I'll just stop by and buy everything. We're just right now getting into strawberries; I saw a batch of those last week.
JD: Is there a culinary technique that you use in an unusual way?
CS: We use a blood stabilizing unit to keep meat. It’s normally used in hospitals to control temperature and humidity.
JD: What’s your philosophy on food and dining?
CS: At Catalan, we do all our plates to share so everyone gets to try. We focus more on small plates that are always changing. We put street food on the menu, as well, which changes all the time. We just took Salvadorian food off the menu, and we’ve had Vietnamese with steamed buns and pork bellies. The concept behind this restaurant is that everyone gets one or two bites and then moves on. After the third bite your palate moves on.
JD: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
CS: Everybody here has a common desire to make this city more and more of a culinary city. In the past eight or even five years, the young guys coming up have had a common goal. It’s been that way in the city for a long time, but nowadays there are so many chef-driven restaurants. Everybody here is just pushing that envelope, and we always try to get together. It’s a tight-knit group. If I’m going to the farmers’ market, somebody says “hey can you pick me this up for me?” We share farmers and we share everything. There are so many dining opportunities in this city, and we share a lot of customers. Diners in Houston dine out a lot. And I know that customers are not going to want to eat at the same place every night. Even if we get 1 percent of people eating out, you know, it works out.
JD: Where will we see you in five years?
CS: This sounds odd, but I’m not really a big believer in setting goals. You never know what’s going to happen. Five years ago I didn’t know that I’d be where I am today. Doors open every day, and you make decisions, you act on it, and everything depends on what path you take. In the end when I go home at the end of the day, I want to feel content with what I do. Every day I have to make sure that my food goes out right.
JD: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
CS: I’d be a butcher, absolutely. I’d have a little butcher shop, just slinging meat. I guess that’s my other passion. I couldn’t ever tell you, hey, I’d be in advertising!